Of all the films thrown into the 2021 awards season conversation, special attention should be paid to Judas and the Black Messiah, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year and will be released both in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12.
Based on a true story that feels like it could have been taken straight from a pulp thriller filmed in the American New Wave, the historical drama tells the story of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and the undercover FBI informant William O’Neal who betrayed him, played respectively by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. The film’s director, Shaka King, worked with comedian-writer duo The Lucas Brothers and Will Berson on the screenplay, to make a unique cinematic statement that draws from multiple genres.
Here, King talks about his artistic hero, the references he makes with shots in his own movie, and the crime dramas that have had an impact on him as both a filmmaker and a fan.
What was the first film you ever made?
It was my junior year of college in 1999. I was shooting short films in black and white. I graduated in 2001 and started writing screenplays. I was like, how do I get these made if I don’t have any money? So I made a short, and did a fundraiser at my aunt’s house for a short music video that I shot with some friends. I shot it on 16mm color film and entered it into some festivals. I wrote some more features, made another short, and eventually decided I couldn’t balance my 9 to 5 job with a filmmaking career and went to NYU film school full-time in 2007.
Most of your filmography, whether that’s short films or episodes of television like Hulu’s Shrill, and most of the previous work from the Judas screenwriters, fall under the category of comedy. Why’d you make the switch to drama?
In film school, I really learned about the craft, and more about writing drama, comedy, you name it. Even though I’ve shot mostly comedy, I remember my film school teacher my first year saying “You should be writing dramas.” I always infused drama into comedy. All of my stuff has probably always been more like a dramedy. I made my first feature my last year there called Newlyweeds, took it to Sundance, and thought it was going to be the beginning of an illustrious career. It was not. [Laughs.]
So how did you spin your craft into a career?
I made another short just for fun called Mulignans. I made it for $500 with my friends and put it on WorldStarHipHop and hoped it would go viral because I thought it was a cool idea. It ended up in Sundance and that short got noticed by some folks making a pilot presentation for a Killer Mike show, which is how I met the Lucas Brothers, who wrote Judas and the Black Messiah.
What was the first thing they told you about the film they had written?
It was a brilliant pitch: The Departed in the world of COINTELPRO. I could see it immediately. Crime dramas are my favorite movies to watch. My favorite era of crime dramas are ‘70s crime dramas. That’s what I put on at night. That, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Rick & Morty are my go-tos for when I want to wind down. It was an opportunity to put forth revolutionary ideas that were framed in the most accessible way, which was Fred Hampton’s gift. Making things accessible, and funny, and clever and witty. I wanted to take that, put it inside of an undercover movie, and flex muscles I hadn’t had a chance as a filmmaker to flex before.
Is there a shot or scene from any 1970s crime drama that you find yourself returning to over and over again?
My favorite is The Friends of Eddie Coyle by Peter Yates. But there’s a moment in Dog Day Afternoon when Al Pacino hears a reporter on the television. Al Pacino plays a closeted homosexual in the movie, and John Cazale does not. The reporter says something about Cazale’s character also being a closet homosexual. And Cazale in the scene is reacting to the news in a way where he’s not being homophobic, but that character is just such a child. He’s like, “That’s not true.” And Pacino’s character is like, “Who cares?” But Cazale is like, “No, it’s not true. I’m not a homosexual.” I actually feel like that character is actually asexual. It’s more like, he means what he says. That kind of nuance in behavior, you only see in movies from that era and some indie films now. The movies from that era that are not at all sentimental. Their prioritization for realism and realistic behavior in all aspects of interaction—prioritized by the director, the producers probably, certainly the writers, certainly the actors—it’s all about the specificity of everything that I just love so much. It’s so rich. You can watch it a million times and get a new thing each time.
Do you find yourself prioritizing realism in a similar way with your films? Do you use that to lay groundwork for stories?
I definitely do, but I also try to give myself the space to veer from that. I like to give myself some freedom. That’s something my cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and I talked about. I initially came to this wanting to make a ‘70s crime drama stylistically as well. But when we talked about it, we talked about the importance of it feeling like it is of today’s cinema in some ways. So how do we bring some of those aspects of ‘70s crime dramas to this film but at the same time use contemporary cinematic language? It starts with me seeing Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. I saw it and was introduced to the Korean auteurs who are my favorite filmmakers to this day. It didn’t even seem like it was a conscious decision, even though it probably was, to fuse all of these tones and make a new thing. I was inspired by them doing that. There is no tone, it’s just the tone of life, it’s a wave. Sometimes it’s surrealist, sometimes it’s absurdist, sometimes incredibly realistic and we’re going to just pull from everything. I’ve been practicing that throughout my career, and this movie was an opportunity to do that with the most tools at my disposal that I’ve ever had. We did it with the music as well.
Some creators like to work alone and present their work once it’s done, and others really like to bring other people along for every step of the way. Where do you fall in between those two camps?
My artistic hero above all is Miles Davis because he was, in my opinion, probably the greatest collaborative artist of all time. He just knew how to recognize everyone’s individual gifts, bring them together, and elevate each person’s individual gifts. He knew when to say something and when to stay out of the way. Coming from that ethos, I’m way in the collaborative camp, and I recognize that I’m not the only storyteller. My actors are storytellers, my D.P. is a storyteller, my costume designer is a storyteller. What I’m doing is first coming up with a vision that is mine, so that I know what I’m trying to say with every decision. Then I’m bringing it to everyone and they’re taking the script in, and in our conversations they’re making their own movie in their heads, and then they’re bringing forward to me what they think is right for their movie. And it isn’t what I saw, but most of the time it’s better than what I saw or different than what I saw. When you look at it like that, you’re just a person who can procure gifts and a person with discerning taste. I had a directing teacher once say that 90 percent of good filmmaking is good casting. He meant in terms of actors, but I internalized that for crews and personality types, too.
Speaking of casting, how did you convince such a heavy-hitting cast—Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons—to be a part of Judas and the Black Messiah?
Lakeith and I met through Ryan Coogler at the Spirit Awards in 2013. I wrote the character for him. I wrote it for all of them, all four people you mentioned, by the way. I was literally typing the words, and seeing them say the words. Dominique was introduced to me through my agency while I was writing it, and I was already writing the role for her. We started working very early on before we were even set up with a studio. Ryan had directed Daniel in Black Panther, so then we met up and decided to move forward. But the hardest person to get was Jesse. We couldn’t get the script to him for whatever reason, but I only wanted him. Finally, I called him and texted him a long text about trying to track him down, and he immediately was in.
When you mentioned creating a film with contemporary cinematic language, it also made me wonder, what sort of framing or shot types are you most drawn to?
Some people have a sort of encyclopedic memory for films, and I’m not that person. For this film, a friend gave me 200 photographs of the West Side of Chicago from 1963 to 1973, and that was a big reference. And then I would just watch movies and think, I could use that. It was like sampling in a lot of ways. I had a list of films I wanted to watch, but then new ones would come to me and I would take pieces from them. There’s a low-angle shot of Daniel Kaluuya, when he’s giving the “high off the people” speech. We actually use it twice in two of his speeches. We also use it in the speech where we introduce him. We got that from When We Were Kings [Leon Gast’s documentary about Muhammad Ali.]
What other references do you make in this film?
When I heard Chairman Fred Hampton speak, I was like, this dude is emceeing. All these dudes were. Then you think of the Black tradition and linkage between emcees, stand up comedians, and preachers. It’s just a person with a microphone. In When We Were Kings, we looked at this shot of Miriam Makeba, and were like, look at the power that that holds, we should employ that here. I wouldn’t have thought that would be a reference for me, but then it was. Then there were things that were obvious like Prince of the City by Sidney Lumet. You’re talking about someone who’s ratting on his friends. Even though William O’Neal and Fred Hampton weren’t friends, there was something to mine from that. I’m pulling from everything.